The first time Beat Steiner went to Bella Coola in 2000 to film some ski videos, he fell in love.
"It's really an extraordinary place geographically," Steiner said.
He knew he was someplace special.
For the next 14 years, Steiner poured his life into making his tourism businesses — Whistler-based Bella Coola Heli Sports and the Tweedsmuir Lake Lodge — a success.
But with recent cuts to B.C. Ferries, and the cancellation of Route 40 from Port Hardy to Bella Coola, those years of hard work and hundreds of thousands of dollars in investment could end up being all for nothing.
Steiner estimates his bookings for the month of July are down two-thirds from what they were last year, while other tourism operators in the area are down by as much as 90 per cent.
Announced last February, the Ministry of Transportation said the cuts were tough, but necessary. "The decision to change the Discovery Coast ferry service was a tough one," a ministry spokesperson said by email.
"However, it was necessary to make changes to the ferry service to help ensure the long-term affordability and sustainability of our coastal ferries to keep fares down."
Route 40, a 13-week seasonal service requiring "significant taxpayer contributions," lost $7.35 million in 2012/13 — a number that would almost double when you add in the cost of replacing the Queen of Chilliwack, which is due to retire in 2017, the ministry said.
In reaching these figures the government puts all costs and losses on Route 40 alone and not the other routes the ferry services. Losses are closer to $4 million when the costs are shared amongst the routes, according to research shared by Steiner.
Since removing the 115-car capacity Queen of Chilliwack from Route 40, the ministry has replaced it with the 16-vehicle Nimpkish, which Steiner says offers no service and a longer, indirect trip to Bella Coola.
"So effectively they've killed the tourism traffic, because except for a hearty few, most tourists will not subject themselves to that," Steiner said.
He also questions why no cuts have been made to any of the routes that service the Victoria area.
"...16.6 per cent of sailings (on Route 5, Victoria-Gulf Islands) have utilization of less than 10 per cent," said Steiner in a letter to Pique this week.
A campaign set up to protest the closure of Route 40, which carried close to 7,000 passengers in 2012/13 — Save the Discovery Coast Ferry — has been highlighting inconsistencies in the government's accounting since the cuts were announced.
"There was no communication, there was no impact studies or anything," said Petrus Rykes, a partner in the Anahim Lake Eagle's Nest Resort and chair of the campaign. "It was just done, and I think they made a mistake."
Rykes argues that Route 40 was essentially three runs in one: the direct passage to Bella Coola which was cancelled, and two "milk runs" — sailings to smaller communities along the coast.
The milk runs were where the brunt of the losses were coming from, Rykes said.
In an effort to save a few million dollars, Rykes said, the government is sacrificing a tourism industry worth many times that.
"We're all business people too," he said. "I would agree with them if it really lost the money they said it did, but not according to the figures. Their own figures."
More information can be found at www.savethediscoverycoastferry.ca.
In response to the closure of Route 40 and the subsequent backlash, Destination B.C. has committed $100,000 in marketing resources to the region, while Minister of State Tourism and Small Business Naomi Yamamoto has spent time in the region meeting with tourism operators.
But according to Steiner, without Route 40 the beautiful Chilcotin backcountry will be missing one very key component.
"There won't be tourists, so what is there?" he said. "We've asked them that. What is their economic development plan for the Central Coast? And it doesn't appear that they even have one."
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